On 20 March, at the Barbican Centre in London, Azerbaijan's Azadliq newspaper was announced as the winner of the Journalism Award, one of Index on Censorship's Freedom of Expression Awards. Azadliq's acting editor-in-chief Rahim Hajiyev accepted the award on behalf of the newspaper, alongside winners in other categories from Egypt, India, and Pakistan.
In receiving this award, Azadliq newspaper has joined the growing ranks of independent Azerbaijani media outlets and journalists receiving prestigious international awards recognizing the importance of their work in an increasingly hostile environment.
Last year in London, freelance journalist Idrak Abbasov received the Martin Adler Prize at the Rory Peck Trust Awards, and Obyektiv TV received the Special Award at the One World Media Awards. It was recently announced that Obyektiv TV has been selected to receive a Fritt Ord Foundation and ZEIT Foundation Press Prize for 2014. Photo and video journalist Mehman Huseynov and RFE/RL journalist Tahmina Tagizade received the same award in 2013.
RFE/RL journalists Khadija Ismayilova and Nushaba Fatullayeva were awarded the 2013 Global Shining Light Award for Investigative Journalism for their work in exposing corruption among Azerbaijan's ruling elite. Ismayilova has received a number of other awards, including a "Courage in Journalism" Award from the International Women's Media Foundation and a Fritt Ord Foundation and ZEIT Foundation Press Prize in 2012.
Within the past five years, Index on Censorship has honored two other Azerbaijanis with freedom of expression awards. In 2010, Media Rights Institute Director Rashid Hajili won the Advocacy Award, and in 2012, freelance journalist Idrak Abbasov won the Journalism Award.
So what is the significance of these awards? Besides recognizing the courageous work of these journalists and media outlets in exposing corruption and human rights abuses and attempting to hold their government accountable, it is hoped that such awards can offer a certain degree of protection to the recipients. Although the award winners listed above face a range of serious and ongoing pressures, it is feared that their situations would be worse without such prestigious international recognition.
For example, just three weeks after receiving an Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award in 2012, Idrak Abbasov was beaten severely by a group of employees of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan while filming them demolishing properties in his village. Abbasov later said to me "Without international support, it would have been worse. Maybe the Index on Censorship award kept me from getting killed."
Azadliq editor Rahim Hajiyev also hoped the award might give the newspaper and its staff some protection, and encourage greater international support for their work. The newspaper faces serious financial difficulties and has been on the brink of closure for some time, due largely to a serious of disproportionately high fines from defamation cases, and the inability of the Qasid Distribution Company to pay a large debt to Azadliq - in turn preventing the newspaper from paying its own debts.
"We are capable of making money," Hajiyev told me, "but the government blocks all of our chances of doing so." One of the latest such moves is an effective ban in place since November 2013, stopping newspapers and books from being sold in Baku's metro stations. What is needed now, Hajiyev said, is not just more statements from international organizations, but concrete financial support for the independent Azerbaijani media.
Indeed, the number of independent outlets in Azerbaijan that remain willing to take on the significant risks associated with pursuing investigative journalism and covering stories related to human rights and corruption is dwindling, as the authorities grow increasingly hostile to those perceived to be government critics. They deserve more serious international support before they, like so many before them, are silenced.
Rebecca Vincent is human rights activist and former U.S. diplomat.
The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL